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Starting Out

Racking 'Em Up—More About Car-Topping Your Canoe or Kayak

By Tamia Nelson

In "Tying One (or More) On, Safely," I explained how to tie boats down when car-topping, and described what can happen when you don't take the trouble to do it right. This time out, I'm going to talk about some of the fine points.

Let's begin at the beginning—with your rack. In the days when almost all cars had rain-gutters and the basic autobody was nothing more than a modified box, choosing a rack was simple. Most just clamped onto the rain-gutters. If the gutters were sturdy and the clamps were sound, you had it made. Nowadays, however, things aren't that easy. Few cars have rain-gutters, and most car roofs are symphonies of compound curves. Some cars even come with all-purpose roof racks as part of the package—"mandatory options" in industry jargon.

The upshot? Fitting a rack and accessories to your car today is a little like getting a pair of hiking boots made to order. You need the help of an experienced dealer to be sure you get it right. Still, there are a couple of general principles to keep in mind. Canoes are almost always transported upside-down. (Water weighs a lot. You don't want to be carrying an outdoor pool around on top of your car after you drive through a rainstorm, do you?) You'll need two pairs of brackets for each canoe's gunwales, but that's it. Kayaks, on the other hand, are usually carried in one of two different ways: either right-side up on cradles or "stacked"—lashed to an upright post and resting on their side seams. (Be sure to pad your cross-bars if you choose this option!) Either way, you'll need snug-fitting cockpit covers to keep rain from filling your boats.

Does it matter how you rack your kayaks? Yes and no. Stacking permits you to haul more boats. This makes family trips and shuttles easier. It also reduces the likelihood that a kayak will acquire permanent creases if it spends too much time in the sun: the side-seam is more rigid than the hull. There are drawbacks to stacking, though. Stacked kayaks are great at catching crosswinds, for one thing, and you may also be tempted to overload your vehicle. Just because you can carry more boats on your car or truck when they're stacked doesn't mean that you should.

Not convinced? Think again. Every automaker specifies maximum load limits for roof racks, and these aren't just lawyer's quibbles to limit liability exposure. A heavy load on your roof raises your vehicle's center of gravity, and a higher center of gravity makes any car or truck more vulnerable to roll-overs. This can be a particular problem with SUVs. They're top-heavy to begin with, at least when compared to sedans. That can lead to some surprises. A Jeep Grand Cherokee with a 4.7-liter, 230-hp V8 is only rated to carry 150 pounds on its roof, for example, while a Ford Focus wagon, with just a 2.0-liter, 130-hp Four, is rated higher, at 220 pounds!

The blocky profiles of SUVs and vans also make them especially sensitive to crosswinds. The result? Driving an SUV or van with a fully-loaded roof rack down a highway swept by gusty 50-mile-per-hour winds is no picnic. So if a roll-over accident isn't your idea of a good time, pay close attention to manufacturers' load limits, and stack kayaks only when you have to.

That's not all. Unless your boats are very short, place your rack's crossbars as far apart as you can. Then, when loading up, be sure each boat is well-balanced, level, and evenly-supported. Unfortunately, this requirement will sometimes conflict with other considerations. Depending on your vehicle's profile, for example, you may find that both bow and stern tie-downs are "pulling the same way." This isn't good. As you bounce over ruts and potholes, and as you accelerate and brake, the boats on your rack will work back and forth in their cradles. If bow and stern tie-downs are each tugging in one direction, your boats will tend to follow along as you drive down the road, and the tie-downs will gradually grow slack. Want an example? Look at the middle panel of the sketch below. The canoe will creep forward.

In Balance?

OK. That's the problem. What can you do about it? Easy. If possible, arrange matters so that the bow and stern tie-downs pull in opposite directions. If that can't be done without tipping your boat out of balance, however, at least take care to see that both belly ties are snug. This will minimize creep. Once you're on the road, check your lashings after every hard stop or bad bump, tightening tie-downs or repositioning your boats as necessary. On long trips down rutted dirt tracks, in fact, it's a good idea to pull over and check all your lashings every half-hour or so, even when your tie-downs pull against each other. A nuisance? Sure. But not as much of a nuisance as picking up the pieces of your canoe or kayak from the side of the road. 'Nuff said.

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